The subtitle of Forkbeard Fantasy's Frankenstein, now running at the Lyric Hammersmith after an opening stint at Bristol Old Vic, is A Truly Monstrous Experiment. Monstrous it certainly is, in the sense that it sits firmly within the Forkbeard aesthetic: brothers Tim and Chris Britton, Ed Jobling and designer Penny Saunders's body of work mixes Gothic acid-casualty sensibilities with Edwardian illusionism and prime English eccentricity.
It is an experiment, though, only in that this show is a step up from the 80- or 90-minute pieces which have played the Lyric's studio space in the last few years to a full-length main-house presentation. The company's Heath Robinson surrealism remains intact, as in particular does its trademark clever blend of live action and film so that characters seem to step effortlessly between stage and screen. On this occasion, the projections cover everything from a dressing-table "mirror" to a huge screen which fills the entire proscenium. On occasion, two films run at once, as we see simultaneous bizarre events in rooms on different storeys of the same Bavarian hotel in which Frankenstein expert David G. Scrivener (Tim Britton) finds himself ensnared in the unholy stratagems of Count Obladee (Chris Britton), making an imaginary film about the life of Mary Shelley (Chris Britton again) and finally discovering the dungeon-laboratory in which he is forced to create a mate for the Creature (played by guess who?).
A slew of references are flung gleefully around the work, from a remark about "our highly Beckettian dialogues" to an echoing audio sample of Nanette Newman's "recipe" line from The Stepford Wives; even the bulging eyes of assistant Igor's papier-mâché head may be a tribute to Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. Of course, various forms and descendants of the Frankenstein story predominate: we are constantly reminded, for instance, that Igor "never really existed" in Shelley's tale, even as he shambles around on the stage.
In the past I have found that Forkbeard shows, whilst immensely clever, enjoyable and admirable in all kinds of ways, never quite achieved the necessary degree of narrative focus. Frankenstein not only does so, but at the same time makes vivid its underlying theme: it is concerned with creation and re-creation, combining pre-existing elements of other works in a way which is new and independent of its sources. The only slight weakness to this production is that the first half relies rather too much on film in itself rather than on blending it with theatrical action. But the Brittonioni Brothers (as they called themselves for their "century of cinema" piece a few years ago) have successfully moved up a division with this show, and may even find that it suits them rather more.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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